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How do non-profits stack up in the ‘customer service’ realm?

Given my TV viewing habits, I get bombarded daily with appeals for contributions to everything from sick seniors to abused animals. Some time ago, with the exception of St. Jude’s Hospital to whom I donate without question, I started checking out these organizations before sending money.

What I’ve found, by and large, is that organizations that can afford to spend gobs of money advertising for money may not be the wisest choice in terms of how good a job they do for their “customers,” in this case people benefitting from the donations.

With large advertising budgets seem to come large operating expenses and top executive compensation—topping $1 million in some cases. Why would an executive seemingly dedicated to the cause not take a smaller salary so that more money could go to those they’re supposedly supporting?

It may just be greed. In some cases, no doubt, it’s rationalized by saying, “Look at all the good I’m doing. Why shouldn’t I get handsomely rewarded for doing it?”

Prospective donors can decide for themselves what does and doesn’t pass muster. Here are some criteria to consider as part of the process:

  1. Look at overall reviews. Does the non-profit get high marks from reviewers? If not, drill down to discover where the weaknesses show up. Sometimes, it’s a high percentage of donation proceeds going to “overhead.” Check a variety of sources to see what the overall review trend shows, as some sites will be decidedly biased one way or another. For example, “reviewers” dedicated to addressing complaints about organizations likely will be biased in that direction. In contrast, some “independent” review sites are really nothing more than fronts for the organizations themselves. By checking around, you’re more likely to get a balanced, true picture.
  2. Check out the bigwigs behind the organization. Non-profit founders and head honchos often receive a fair amount of publicity. Check to see what the prevailing opinions are about them. Recently, I was looking to contribute, but upon checking out the bigwigs came to the conclusion that they were at least as invested in self-aggrandizement and high salaries as they were in helping the cause. I quickly came to the conclusion not to donate.
  3. Don’t be persuaded purely by emotional appeals. Who isn’t moved by scenes of suffering kids and animals? While these scenes can be compelling, dig deeper to check it out. A good cause is a good cause no matter how much advertising is done or how many heartstrings are pulled.
  4. Compare and contrast similar types of organizations. For example, there are a variety of non-profits dedicated to saving abused animals. Without doubt, this is in principle a highly worthwhile cause. But, there are many different flavors, and it’s up to each individual to decide priorities. While I do have a heightened awareness of care for such species as elephants and bears as a result of my tenure with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, I feel most strongly attracted to helping neglected dogs, cats and other domestic species.

    Sometimes, this can be a case where staying local is a great idea. Community no-kill shelters and organizations dedicated to animals may merit your dollars more than the high-profile national organizations. By doing some research and getting clear on your individual preferences, you’ll likely gravitate to the organization(s) that are right for you.

  5. Look for a significant marker of excellence where possible. Part of the reason I donate to St. Jude’s is that families don’t have to pay for their kids’ care. For me, that was a dealmaker, on top of the fact that what they’re doing continues to reduce deaths from childhood cancer. In addition to treatment, they share research that can help others. When all is said and done, that’s enough for me.


Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.

Author of A Wandering Wondering Jew… and co-author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Leverage,  Mark (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is the owner of a Denver-based marketing communications firm.

One reply on “How do non-profits stack up in the ‘customer service’ realm?”

I’m glad to see you have included non-profits in your study of customer service. I know that salaries for heads of non-profits are published and there is a chart that shows how much of each donated dollar actually goes to the cause. Mega-organizations like United Way and Red Cross score poorly on these charts because, as you mention in your article, CEO salaries and budgets for advertising are very high. Giving to charity is a win-win for everyone if one is careful about where to “invest” one’s donations.

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